Orange Home Grown Goes Beyond Farmers Market Roots to Spread Local Food & Ag Education in OC

“In Orange County, the local food system is not good at all—it’s behind the times,” says Megan Penn, co-founder and executive director of Orange Home Grown. Penn and the organization she leads are working hard to remedy that.

Change is happening, says Penn, who believes that “food is the essence of everything.”

Penn was raised in the City of Orange, but it was not until she went to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that her eyes were truly opened to the wonders of local and sustainable food and agriculture.

“There was a fabulous farmers’ market which was part of my college life,” she says.

Upon returning to the City of Orange, however, Penn noticed the lack of farmers’ markets and locally-produced food.

“My friends and neighbors felt the same way,” she says.

So in 2009 Penn and others, including eight other co-founders of Orange Home Grown, started meeting informally in various backyards and kitchens and began to visit farmers’ markets. Five years ago, they formed the Orange Home Grown Farmers & Artisans Market which today is the lone farmers’ market in the City of Orange. Despite its success, Penn and others realized that so much more could and needed to be done.

“The farmers’ market was not enough,” she says.

More community involvement was needed, and this realization led to the natural evolution into Orange Home Grown, which focuses on education, collaboration, camaraderie, advocacy and more.

Among Orange Home Grown’s numerous initiatives is a new seed lending library, in partnership with the City of Orange Public Library. It launched on March 19, and offers free seeds to participants. The expectation is that seed borrowers will replace the seeds with new seeds resulting from their harvest.

Another project on the horizon is a community farm, the first of its kind in Orange. Orange Home Grown is partnering with Chapman University in this endeavor. It is currently in negotiations with the City of Orange, since current zoning laws don’t allow for growing food at that chosen site. A public hearing is scheduled, and Penn believes the ruling will be favorable.

“We hope to break ground in May or June,” she says. “It will be an educational farm run by Orange Home Grown, but open to the community. There will be opportunities for volunteers to come out and get their hands dirty. I want to start with this site and show the community how it can be profitable and successful.”

Orange Home Grown has collaborated with the City of Orange Public Library to form a seed lending library. (photo by Megan Penn/Orange Home Grown)

Orange Home Grown has collaborated with the City of Orange Public Library to form a seed lending library. (photo by Megan Penn/Orange Home Grown)

Orange Home Grown also hosts a spectrum of events, and one of the most popular is its annual Chicken Coop Tour. This year’s tour, slated for June 25, provides resources and networking opportunities for those who raise chickens in urban or suburban environments. Raising chickens is legal within the city of Orange, but illegal in some other county municipalities.

Penn is amazed when she looks back on the progress the organization has made over the years. Nevertheless, she readily gives a nod to the fact that so much is yet to be done. At some point, she would love Orange Home Grown to facilitate getting locally-produced food into public schools in the City of Orange and possibly elsewhere in the county.

“This goal of getting good food into schools is probably years out,” she says. “It’s a lofty goal.”

Even so, it’s an objective she hopes to work toward.

Although Orange Home Grown is not yet supplying food to schools, it takes seriously its relationship with education. Examples include working together with Chapman University in pursuing the establishment of a community farm; connecting with Cal Poly Pomona, which offers a farmers’ market class; and offering two $2,000 scholarships each year that benefit college students who are studying food and agriculture, or related fields.

Penn feels that one of the chief obstacles hindering a strong local food system in Orange County is lack of awareness—thus the reason Orange Home Grown takes education so seriously. These educational efforts include urban farming presentations, chef demonstrations, and tutorials.

“It’s all about education,” says Penn. “Conversations need to be bigger and broader. Once people know they can make a change, then they create small-scale environments for conversations.”

Thus, even though Orange Home Grown’s efforts are centered on the city of Orange, Penn hopes its work will spread throughout Orange County. To broaden its efforts and reach, Orange Home Grown works with a number of other likeminded organizations in the county including Slow Food Orange County and the Orange County Food Access Coalition.

“Were trying to build relationships,” Penn says. “We’re trying to go back to our roots.”

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